Whether you’re a tourist or an NYC resident, it's always nice to have a free activity or place to go that you know you can enjoy. Tompkins Square park is one of those places.
Come enjoy its beauty and history absolutely free 365 days a year. Here’s a list of things to see and memorable moments in the park’s history.
1. The Hare Krishna Tree
In a park that’s been more associated with punk rock, riots, and heroin than peace-loving religions, you may be surprised to find out that Tompkins Square Park is the birthplace of Hare Krishna in the United States.
Under the above-pictured tree the movement’s founder A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada led a two-hour chant, which started the Hare Krishna movement in the western world.
Other East Village notables such as famed poet Allen Ginsberg joined Prabhupada's chanting.
2. Roommate Stew
Daniel Rakowitz illustrates just how different the park was only a couple of decades later.
In 1989 Rakowitz killed, dismembered, and made a soup out of his then roommate, which he fed to the homeless in the park.
This earned him the nickname The Butcher of Tompkins Square. Rakowitz was found not guilty by reason of insanity and lives in Kirby Psychiatric Center to this day.
3. Tompkins goes to the dogs.
As part of a massive renovation effort that the park went through starting in 1990, Tompkins Square Park got a dog run. But this wasn’t just any dog-run—it was the first ever dog run installed by the Parks Department in all of NYC.
Tompkins continues its reputation as the dog lover’s park with its annual Tompkins Square Halloween Dog Parade. With over 400 dogs in costumes and thousands of spectators, it is the biggest dog costume party in the United States.
4. Tompkins on 34th Street?
The park’s namesake is Daniel D. Tompkins. Tompkins was a graduate of Columbia College. He was the fourth Governor of New York and the sixth Vice-President of the United States.
In addition to being the Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of New York, there is also a Daniel D. Tompkins Memorial Chapel in his honor at the Masonic Home in Utica.
But perhaps the most New York part of his legacy is that Kris Kringle mentioned his name in the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th St.
5. Better have the riot gear ready!
If there’s one thing Tompkins Square has always had its share of, it's riots.
Minor riots were practically a daily occurrence from its inception, by its had its share of full on major riots too. Take your pick; 1857 over unemployment and food shortages, 1863 brought the deadly Draft Riots, 1874 over labor conflicts, 1877 5,000 people fought the Coast Guard, the 1960s saw continuous protests against the Vietnam War, and the riots that occurred in the late 80s and early 90s finally led to the park being shut down for over year while the city renovated.
Many think this renovation was just an excuse the city used to shut down what they viewed as the central nerve of downtown angst and protest.
6. Prohibition, Going Postal, and the Biggest Death Toll Prior to 9/11
There are three monuments to see in Tompkins Square. The Temperance Fountain was erected in 1888, during the temperance movement, which ultimately led to prohibition. Its purpose was to give people free access to drinking water so they wouldn’t drink alcohol for refreshment.
Employees of the United States Post Office raised the Statue erected to Samuel S Cox in 1891. Cox was a member of Congress and strong supporter of postal workers and even though the company he kept was considered to be the crème de la crème of the liberal elite, they all still giggled after saying his last name.
On the north side of the park is the memorial to the General Slocum boating disaster of June, 1904. Over a thousand people including men, women, and children died in the East River, making it the biggest loss of life in the City’s history until 9/11. James Joyce also memorializes the disaster in his classic novel Ulysses.
7. Bring us your dead.
Everyone has played Tompkins from Charlie Parker to Jimi Hendrix to punk and hardcore legends like The Ramones and The Cro-Mags—but everyone is always surprised to hear about this next one.
Number 7 on our list will be a pleasant surprise for Dead Heads. After the band shell was erected in 1966 it became a free-for-all jam spot for local Latino and Psychedelic bands to showcase their talents. Bands on the road often took advantage of the band shell too, as was the case on June 1, 1967 when the Grateful Dead played a free show in Tompkins Square.
This was the first time the Dead ever played New York and the hippie crowd of late 60s Tompkins celebrated every minute of it.
8. East Village Skate of Mind
When it’s not occupied by a mid-thirties street hockey league, the flat ground section of asphalt along 10th and east of Ave A is occupied by skateboarders and usually a few obstacles that seem to appear and disappear out of nowhere.
This makeshift "Training Facility" has been skated by every New York skater ever and just about everyone who's visited for more than a week. It’s unspectacular but it’s a New York staple.
If you’re from out of town and plan on skating, observe for a few minutes before you jump in—the locals have rules and don’t take kindly to tourists who break them.
9. A Little Grass Never Hurt Anyone
Forget the Great Lawn at Central Park—it's got nothing on the lawn at Tompkins.
Smack dab in the middle of the park is a grassy oasis where young people gather in the sun. Thousands of young adults have sunbathed and/or made love on this sacred patch of grass.
And, due to the recent decriminalizing of marijuana in New York, it's also a patch of grass where you can probably enjoy smoking a little grass without getting too much flack.
10. Around the Square
There are a few places directly across from parts of the park that are definitely worth visiting. If you’re a fan of classic New York Punk Rock then head to the corner of 7th and B and look diagnol to your right—when you see the red Manitoba’s sign, you’ve reached your first destination.
This bar is owned by Handsome Dick Manitoba, front man of legendary NYC Punk Band the Dictators. It’s not uncommon to see Handsome Dick there on a Friday night holding court. If you’re polite and respectful, he might let you get a picture.
Now head to the corner of 7th and A to take your picture in front of the legendary Joe Strummer mural on the side of Niagara bar.
Joe Strummer used to occasionally hang out at this bar and the plaque in the back room shows the numerous other New York Punk and Hardcore legends that hung out on Avenue A and in this very bar during one of its various incarnations.
Niagara has been a neighborhood staple since the late 90s and has been a favorite hang for everyone from NOFX to The Strokes.
If you’re hungry head next door to Tompkins Square Bar and get a Pat La Frieda Burger or head across the street to the legendary Ray’s Candy Store and get a couple of chili cheese dogs or a deep-fried dessert. We hope you enjoy your time in the East Village!